Therukoothu: The People’s Art

Anders Staal Dragoer, Denmark

Anders Staal speaks to Dr I. Muthiah, Professor and Head, Department of Folk Arts, Madurai Kamaraj University, and traces the history of Therukoothu, a traditional art form in Tamil Nadu.

Although an ancient art form, Therukoothu is responsive to social changes and thereby ensures that it will live on and not be relegated to the status of a dying or forgotten art.

Therukoothu is more than a traditional art form- it is a tradition of great social and religious importance relevant to agriculture and village life. Therukoothu, meaning street theatre, has its roots in isai (music) and natyam (drama), and combines these elements to become a vibrant combination of music and dance theatre called koothu. Therukoothu is primarily performed in the northern and central districts of Tamil Nadu, where every district and area has its own characteristics in terms of how they adapt the play to the local traditions. Therukoothu has its counterparts in Southern India– Yakshagana in Karnataka, Veethinataka in Andhra Pradesh and Kathakali in Kerala. They all have similar performance texts, themes, costumes, team members, and round performance spaces, or kalari.

The costumes of Therukoothu are bright and expressive

The costumes of Therukoothu are bright and expressive.


Social and Religious Impotance

Therukoothu is more than a traditional art form- it is a tradition of great social and religious importance relevant to agriculture and village life. Therukoothu, meaning street theatre, has its roots in isai (music) and natyam (drama), and combines these elements to become a vibrant combination of music and dance theatre called koothu. Therukoothu is primarily performed in the northern and central districts of Tamil Nadu, where every district and area has its own characteristics in terms of how they adapt the play to the local traditions. Therukoothu has its counterparts in Southern India– Yakshagana in Karnataka, Veethinataka in Andhra Pradesh and Kathakali in Kerala. They all have similar performance texts, themes, costumes, team members, and round performance spaces, or kalari.

Therukoothu also serves other functions. People gather around the kolari, where they talk, eat and sleep, as the play typically from around 9 pm until sunrise. People can forget their problems for a night and concentrate on the play and the celebration. Sometimes marriage arrangements are also done. In this way the people are united, connections established, and the individuals meet their psychological and social needs. The event therefore benefits the village biologically and socially as grain production and successful child births increase during these months.

The Performance

The kalari or round performance space has a very important function as there are no boundaries between the performers and the audience. This means it is a performance for and by the people. Before the play begins, the performers go around the crowd and introduce the different characters. Sometimes there will be a ‘clown sequence’, where a ‘clown’ mingles with the audience. This creates a light hearted atmosphere. People can go into the kalari and give the performers money or make loud ovations if they are satisfied with the play.

Therukoothu is generally based onstories from the great epics of Mahabharataand Ramayana. Because of thelength of the play people will sleep andeat during the performances. They,however, wake each other up whenfunny or important sequences occur.This is an integral part of attendingTherukoothu, and it is not problematicbecause all people know the storiesvery well, as the same stories areperformed year after year. This senseof the expected and its democraticappeal is one of Therukoothu’s greatstrengths- it is for everyone and no demandsare placed on the audience.

Therukoothu is performed by six or seven male performers. This entails storytelling, dialogue, dance and singing, so the men have to be skilled in all aspects. They also enact the women characters in the play. It is a belief that women “pollute’’ the religious ritual if they are one of the performers. The performers’ appearance is very stylised. They wear high head dresses, sparkling shoulder plates and wide colourful skirts. The put on spectacular make up, which symbolises the power of the characters. The orchestra consists of a mukhaveena (string instrument) and a mridangam (drum).

At Crossroads

Today, Therukoothu is mostly performed on stage, which means it is losing some of its purpose as a barrier is now created between performers and audience. However whilst traditional Therukoothu is a dying art, it has been able to adapt naturally into current theatre and cinema. This is positive when one considers that European tradtioanl theatre did not survive the advent of modernity.

Awareness of Therukoothu is also created through publications and documentaries and youth are still being trained in this art form as it has adapted to modern interests. For instance, new stories and themes have been added to the traditional ones. A further development is that women are now performing, although only when the themes are secular. If the issue or story is religious in nature, it is still only the men who perform. It seems that Therukoothu has grown and developed while retaining its basic form it now appeals to broader audience. It is clear that when art is responsive to changing times this ensures it will live on like Therukoothu.

Read here the full magazine on:


Summary
April 2010 Issue